Cleverley steps in to Scholes' shoes to prove that size isn't everything

After three years out on loan, a glittering Old Trafford future beckons for young but diminutive midfielder. Ian Herbert reports
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The Independent Football

The X Factor star Olly Murs has been a Manchester United fan all his life but wasn't the first individual to have made the mistake of overlooking Tom Cleverley at the weekend.

Murs provided the verdict on Sir Alex Ferguson's players for the Community Shield match programme for which Cleverley was sidelined among a subsidiary list of players headlined "The Rest".

That is precisely the place where Cleverley seems to have been for much of his United life. Scouts and coaches have considered his diminutive stature – he is 5ft 9in – to be an impediment and United's doubts were never more evident than six years ago when Cleverley was asked to split his time between the club and two more years of school, while other United Academy scholars went into full-time training. "I was never knocked back but I'd say I was doubted," Cleverley later reflected. "I've never really had it easy in my career. Compared to everyone else in the team I was really small. It was hard."

Yesterday, four days short of his 22nd birthday, Cleverley could reflect that perhaps he has been seen, after a stellar second-half display in United's Community Shield comeback prompted a late call-up by Fabio Capello for the England squad to face the Netherlands tomorrow. United are expected to begin discussions soon which may lead to a new five-year deal and an improved £40,000-a-week salary.

Though Ferguson is understood to be leaning towards the view that Paul Scholes' successor was there all along – his own messianic desire to build a last young side before he leaves, strengthens Cleverley's appeal – the 21-year-old's long and winding journey to recognition at Old Trafford has rendered him a stranger to the place in recent years, out on loan at Leicester City, Watford and Wigan Athletic. Finding his right starting position has been part of the trouble: a year before his release to Leicester he was a fairly ordinary left-back whom United were close to releasing. His switch to midfield at that stage appears to have saved him from obscurity.

These travails have engendered a worldliness, where once there might have been a fresh face. Still flushed with exertions of a superb and integral midfield display in United's pre-season win over Barcelona in Washington nine days ago, Cleverley was asked if appearing opposite Andres Iniesta had been beyond his wildest dreams. "It's what you strive for," he said, knowingly. "If you've got targets why not achieve them?"

More proactive in Washington and at Wembley than Michael Carrick, though of course vastly less proven than Wesley Sneijder, whom Ferguson has not given up on, he is one of the few Manchester United players to have taken delight in the success of the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi. He has always seen them as torchbearers for those players who stand no more than 5ft 7in.

Cleverley, who was born in Yorkshire and chose United ahead of Leeds and Blackburn at the age of 11, has certainly had some growing up to do. His father, Andrew, presented him with a compilation DVD for his 21st birthday last August and some footage reveals a figure dwarfed by his team-mates in the United U-15s, celebrating as he scores on a remote, dusty pitch in Kenya in 2004.

Football is there in his genes – his great uncle, Reg Stratton, played alongside Johnny Haynes at Fulham – but he also has an outlook which enables him to view with equanimity his shortcomings. Cleverley made David Beckham a role-model early on because he observed how he flourished without pace, too. "I try to get a bit of Beckham, a bit of Scholes and people have mentioned Park Ji-sung and his work-rate in midfield," he said recently. He has needed to grab his brief United chances, usually on pre-season tour, before heading off again on a loan spell. Handed a first-team outing in South Africa three summers back, Cleverley scored against Kaizer Chiefs. He repeated the feat against Valencia the following year and his two goals on last summer's tour of North America included a memorable strike in the Houston Astrodome.

But it was the symbolism of a diminutive, quick-footed United midfielder playing Barcelona at their own game at the FedEx Field which really struck some of United's regulars last week, and Patrice Evra's discussion of Cleverley yesterday provided an intriguing clue that United's coaching staff have perhaps been working on tiki-taka since the demoralising Champions League final defeat to Barcelona.

"The staff have done well in pre-season," said Evra. "We don't aim to play like Barcelona, we just want to be Manchester United. But sometimes if you can play one touch and score a goal like that, then why not? In America, Cleverley played some amazing games, particularly against Barcelona. In the second half [against City] you saw that he is not afraid, he had a lot of energy and Man United need a player like this. He's a quiet lad, he's a bit like Scholesy in that way. He never talks much. He just does his job on the pitch. He's a very private guy."

Cleverley has some of the trappings of fame but his demeanour is of one who has not yet reached celebrity status. At Wigan, staff marvelled at his willingness to help promote the club. Cleverley took two or three months to get established but became an important contributor, stationed on the left side, cutting in.

Those years on loan have made initiation ceremonies a familiar part of Cleverley's early August routine: at each of his three loan clubs he clambered on to a chair to perform the Bill Withers classic Ain't No Sunshine. The title seems as fitting as his own reflections on the United introductory ritual he endured three years ago in Pretoria, where he had to give a short speech before Ryan Giggs put him through a public Q and A. "It is daunting and that's why they do these things," he explained. "It's not easy to stand up in front of all those names but you have to. It makes you a bigger person."

Your country needs you, but does your club...

Tom Cleverley, who is by no means certain of a regular place at Manchester United, is not the only player to be called up recently by Fabio Capello despite not being a first choice at his club.

Danny Welbeck (Man Utd)

Cleverley's Manchester United team-mate is also in the England squad for tomorrow's friendly. Despite starting the Community Shield, he is unlikely to start many games this season, having spent last year on loan at Sunderland.

David Stockdale (Fulham)

Goalkeeper Stockdale was in the squad for the Denmark friendly in February but is so behind Mark Schwarzer at Fulham he is at Ipswich on loan.

Frankie Fielding (Blackburn Rovers)

Fielding, also a goalkeeper, was called up for last year's Hungary match despite being a back-up at Blackburn Rovers at the time. He is yet to play in the Premier League, having only played during loan spells in the lower leagues.

Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal)

Gibbs played matches against Hungary and France last year even though Gaël Clichy, now at Manchester City, was Arsenal's preferred left-back when fit.

Kyle Walker (Tottenham Hotspur)

Back at Tottenham this season, Walker faces competition from Vedran Corluka and Alan Hutton at right-back but has been called up by Capello after a good loan spell at Aston Villa and an impressive Under-21 Championship.